THOUGHTS ON IMMORTALITY
by J. C. Ryle, April 19, 1883
"The things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal." —2 Corinthians 4:18
A subject stands out on the face of this text, which is one of the most solemn and heart-searching in the Bible. That subject is eternity, or immortality.
The subject is one of which the wisest man can only take in a little. We have no eyes to see it fully, no line to fathom it, no mind to grasp it; and yet we must not refuse to consider it. There are star-depths in the heavens above us which the most powerful telescope cannot pierce; yet it is well to look into them and learn something, if we cannot learn everything. There are heights and depths about the subject of eternity which mortal man can never comprehend; but God has spoken of it, and we have no right to turn away from it altogether.
The subject is one which we must never approach without the Bible in our hands. The moment we depart from "God's written Word," in considering eternity and the future state of man, we are likely to fall into error. In examining points like these we have nothing to do with preconceived notions as to what is God's character, and what we think God ought to be, or ought to do with man after death. We have only to find out what is written. "What says the Scripture? What says the Lord?" It is wild work to tell us that we ought to have "noble thoughts about God," independent of, and over and above, Scripture. Natural religion soon comes to a standstill here. The noblest thoughts about God which we have a right to hold are the thoughts which He has been pleased to reveal to us in His "written Word."
I ask the attention of all into whose hands this sermon may fall, while I offer a few suggestive thoughts about eternity. As a mortal man I feel deeply my own insufficiency to handle this subject. But I pray that God the Holy Spirit, whose strength is made perfect in weakness, may bless the words I have written, and make them seeds of eternal life in many minds.
1. We live in a world where all things are temporary and passing away.
That man must be blind indeed who cannot realize this. Everything around us is decaying, dying, and coming to an end. There is a sense, no doubt, in which "matter" is eternal. Once created, it will never entirely perish. But in a popular practical sense, there is nothing undying about us except our souls. No wonder the poet says—
"Change and decay in all around I see,
O You that change not, abide with me!"
We are all "going, going, going," whether high or low, gentle or simple, rich or poor, old or young. We are all going, and shall soon be "gone."
Beauty is only temporary. Sarah was once the fairest of women, and the admiration of the Court of Egypt; yet a day came when even Abraham, her husband, said, "Let me bury my dead out of sight." (Gen. 23:4.) Strength of body is only temporary. David was once a mighty man of valor, the slayer of the lion and the bear, and the champion of Israel against Goliath; yet a day came when even David had to be nursed and ministered to in his old age like a child. Wisdom and vitality of brain are only temporary. Solomon was once a prodigy of knowledge, and all the kings of the earth came to hear his wisdom; yet even Solomon in his latter days played the fool exceedingly, and allowed his wives to turn away his heart.
Humbling and painful as these truths may sound, it is good for us to realize them and lay them to heart. The houses we live in, the homes we love, the riches we accumulate, the professions we follow, the plans we form, the relations we enter into, they are only for a time. "The things seen are temporary." "The fashion of this world passes away." (1 Cor. 7:31.)
The thought is one which ought to rouse every one who is living only for this world. If his conscience is not utterly seared, it should stir in him great searchings of heart. Oh, take care what you are doing! Awake to see things in their true light before it be too late. The things you live for now are all temporary and passing away. The pleasures, the amusements, the recreations, the merry-makings, the profits, the earthly callings, which now absorb all your heart and drink up all your mind, will soon be over. They are poor ephemeral things which cannot last. Oh, do not love them not too well; do not grasp them too tightly; do not make them your idols! You cannot keep them, and you must leave them. Seek first the kingdom of God, and then everything else shall be added to you. "Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth." Oh, you that love the world, be wise in time! Never, never forget that it is written, "The world passes away, and the lust thereof; but he who does the will of God abides forever." (Col. 3:2; 1 John 2:17.)
The same thought ought to cheer and comfort every true Christian. Your trials, crosses, and conflicts are all temporary. They will soon have an end; and even now they are working for you "a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory." (2 Cor. 4:17.) Take them patiently; bear them quietly; look upward, forward, onward, and far beyond them. Fight your daily fight under an abiding conviction that it is only for a little time, and that rest is not far off. Carry your daily cross with an abiding recollection that it is one of the "things seen" which are temporary. The cross shall soon be exchanged for a crown, and you shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God.
2. We are all going towards a world where everything is eternal.
That great unseen state of existence which lies behind the grave, is forever. Whether it be happy or miserable, whether it be a condition of joy or sorrow, in one respect it is utterly unlike this world—it is forever. There, at any rate, will be no change and decay, no end, no good-bye, no mornings and evenings, no alteration, no annihilation. Whatever there is beyond the tomb, when the last trumpet has sounded, and the dead are raised, will be endless, everlasting, and eternal. "The things unseen are eternal."
We cannot fully realize this condition. The contrast between now and then, between this world and the next, is so enormously great that our feeble minds will not take it in. The consequences it entails are so tremendous, that they almost take away our breath, and we shrink from looking at them. But when the Bible speaks plainly we have no right to turn away from a subject, and with the Bible in our hands we shall do well to look at the "things which are eternal."
(a) Let us settle it, then, in our minds, for one thing, that the future happiness of those who are saved is eternal. However little we may understand it, it is something which will have no end—it will never cease, never grow old, never decay, never die. At God's "right hand are pleasures for evermore." (Ps. 16:11.) Once landed in paradise, the saints of God shall go out no more. Their inheritance is "incorruptible, undefiled, and fades not away." They shall "receive a crown of glory that fades not away." (1 Pet. 1:4; 5:4.) Their warfare is accomplished; their fight is over; their work is done. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more. They are traveling on towards an "eternal weight of glory," towards a home which shall never be broken up, a meeting without a parting, a family gathering without a separation, a day without night. Faith shall be swallowed up in sight, and hope in certainty. They shall see as they have been seen, and know as they have been known, and "be forever with the Lord." I do not wonder that the Apostle Paul adds, "Comfort one another with these words." (1 Thess. 4:17, 18.)
(b) Let us settle it, for another thing, in our minds, that the future misery of those who are finally lost is eternal. This is a dreadful truth, I am aware, and flesh and blood naturally shrink from the contemplation of it. But I am one of those who believe it to be plainly revealed in Scripture, and I dare not keep it back in the pulpit. To my eyes eternal future happiness and eternal future misery appear to stand side by side. I fail to see how you can distinguish the duration of one from the duration of the other. If the joy of the believer is forever, the sorrow of the unbeliever is also forever. If Heaven is eternal, so likewise is hell. It may be my ignorance, but I know not how the conclusion can be avoided.
I cannot reconcile the non-eternity of punishment with the language of the Bible. Its advocates talk loudly about love and charity, and say that it does not harmonize with the merciful and compassionate character of God. But what says the Scripture? Who ever spoke such loving and merciful words as our Lord Jesus Christ? Yet His are the lips which three times over describe the consequence of impenitence and sin, as "the worm that never dies and the fire that is not quenched." He is the Person who speaks in one sentence of the wicked going away into "everlasting punishment" and the righteous into "life eternal." (Mark 9:43-48; Matt. 25:46.) Who does not remember the Apostle Paul's words about charity? Yet he is the very Apostle who says, the wicked "shall be punished with everlasting destruction." (2 Thess. 1:9.) Who does not know the spirit of love which runs through all John's Gospel and Epistles? Yet the beloved Apostle is the very writer in the New Testament who dwells most strongly, in the book of Revelation, on the reality and eternity of future woe. What shall we say to these things? Shall we be wise above that which is written? Shall we admit the dangerous principle that words in Scripture do not mean what they appear to mean? Is it not far better to lay our hands on our mouths and say, "Whatever God has written must be true." "Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are Your judgments." (Rev. 16:7.)
I cannot reconcile the non-eternity of punishment with the language of our Prayer-book. The very first petition in our matchless Litany contains this sentence, "From everlasting damnation, good Lord, deliver us." The Catechism teaches every child who learns it, that whenever we repeat the Lord's Prayer we desire our Heavenly Father to "keep us from our ghastly enemy and from everlasting death." Even in our Burial Service we pray at the grave side, "Deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death." Once more I ask, "What shall we say to these things?" Shall we teach our congregations that even when people live and die in sin we may hope for their happiness in a remote future? Surely the common sense of many of our worshipers would reply, that if this is the case Prayer-book words mean nothing at all.
I lay no claim to any 'special knowledge' of Scripture. I feel daily that I am no more infallible than the Pope of Rome. But I must speak according to the light which God has given to me; and I do not think I should do my duty if I did not raise a warning voice on this subject, and try to put Christians on their guard. Six thousand years ago sin entered into the world by the devil's daring falsehood—"You shall not surely die." (Gen. 3:4.) At the end of six thousand years the great enemy of mankind is still using his old weapon, and trying to persuade men that they may live and die in sin, and yet at some distant period may be finally saved. Let us not be ignorant of his devices. Let us walk steadily in the old paths. Let us hold fast the old truth, and believe that as the happiness of the saved is eternal, so also is the misery of the lost.
(a) Let us hold it fast in the interest of the whole system of revealed religion. What was the use of God's Son becoming incarnate, agonizing in Gethsemane, and dying on the cross to make atonement, if men can be finally saved without believing on Him? Where is the slightest proof that saving faith in Christ's blood can ever begin after death? Where is the need of the Holy Spirit, if sinners are at last to enter heaven without conversion and renewal of heart? Where can we find the smallest evidence that any one can be born again, and have a new heart, if he dies in an unregenerate state? If a man may escape eternal punishment at last, without faith in the blood of Christ or sanctification of the Spirit, sin is no longer an infinite evil, and there was no need for Christ making an atonement.
(b) Let us hold it fast for the sake of holiness and morality. I can imagine nothing so pleasant to flesh and blood as the specious theory that we may live in sin, and yet escape eternal perdition; and that although we "serve diverse lusts and pleasures" while we are here, we shall somehow or other all get to heaven hereafter! Only tell the young man who is "wasting his substance in riotous living," that there is heaven at last, or, at any rate, no eternal punishment, even for those who live and die in sin, and he is never likely to turn from evil. Why should he repent and take up the cross, if he can get to heaven at last, or escape punishment, without trouble?
(c) Finally, let us hold it fast, for the sake of the common hopes of all God's saints. Let us distinctly understand that every blow struck at the eternity of punishment is an equally heavy blow at the eternity of reward. It is impossible to separate the two things. No ingenious theological definition can divide them. They stand or fall together. The same language is used, the same figures of speech are employed, when the Bible speaks about either condition. Every attack on the duration of hell is also an attack on the duration of heaven. It is a deep and true saying, "With the sinner's fear our hope departs."
I turn from this part of my subject with a deep sense of its painfulness. I feel strongly with Robert M'Cheyne, that "it is a hard subject to handle lovingly." But I turn from it with an equally deep conviction that if we believe the Bible we must never give up anything which it contains. From hard, austere, and unmerciful theology, good Lord, deliver us! If men are not saved, it is because they "will not come to Christ." (John 5:40.) But we must not be wise above that which is written. No morbid love of liberality, so called, must induce us to reject anything which God has revealed about eternity. Men sometimes talk exclusively about God's mercy and love and compassion, as if He had no other attributes, and leave out of sight entirely His holiness and His purity, His justice and His unchangeableness, and His hatred of sin. Let us beware of falling into this delusion. It is a growing evil in these latter days.
Low and inadequate views of the unutterable vileness and filthiness of sin, and of the unutterable purity of the eternal God, are prolific sources of error about man's future state. Let us think of the mighty Being with whom we have to do, as He Himself declared His character to Moses, saying, "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, patience and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin." But let us not forget the solemn clause which concludes the sentence—"And that will by no means clear the guilty." (Exod. 34:6, 7.) Unrepented sin is an eternal evil, and can never cease to be sin; and He with whom we have to do is an eternal God.
The words of Psalm 145 are strikingly beautiful—"The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all—and His tender mercies are over all His works. The Lord upholds all that fall, and raises up all those that be bowed down. The Lord is righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works. The Lord is near unto all them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth. The Lord preserves all them that love Him." Nothing can exceed the mercifulness of this language! But what a striking fact it is that the passage goes on to add the following solemn conclusion, "All the wicked will He destroy." (Psalm 145:8-20.)
3. Our state in the unseen world of eternity depends entirely on what we are in time.
The life that we live upon earth is short at the very best, and soon gone. "We spend our days as a tale that is told." "What is our life? It is a vapor—so soon passes it away, and we are gone." (Psalm 90:9; James 4:14.) The life that is before us when we leave this world is an endless eternity, a sea without a bottom, and an ocean without a shore. "One day in Your sight," eternal God, "is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." (2 Pet. 3:8.) In that world time shall be no more. But short as our life is here, and endless as it will be hereafter, it is a tremendous thought that eternity hinges upon time. Our lot after death depends, humanly speaking, on what we are while we are alive. It is written, "God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger." Romans 2:6-8
We ought never to forget that we are all, while we live, in a state of probation. We are constantly sowing seeds which will spring up and bear fruit, every day and hour in our lives. There are eternal consequences resulting from all our thoughts and words and actions, of which we take far too little account. "For every idle word that men speak they shall give account in the day of judgment." (Matt. 12:36.) Our thoughts are all numbered, our actions are weighed. No wonder that Paul says, "He who sows to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting." (Gal. 6:8.) In a word, what we sow in life we shall reap after death, and reap to all eternity.
There is no greater delusion than the common idea that it is possible to live wickedly, and yet rise again gloriously; to be without religion in this world, and yet to be a saint in the next. When the famous Whitefield revived the doctrine of conversion last century, it is reported that one of his hearers came to him after a sermon and said—"It is all quite true, sir. I hope I shall be converted and born again one day, but not until after I am dead." I fear there are many like him. I fear the false doctrine of the Romish purgatory has many secret friends even within the pale of the Church of England! However carelessly men may go on while they live, they secretly cling to the hope that they shall be found among the saints when they die. They seem to hug the idea that there is some cleansing, purifying effect produced by death, and that, whatever they may be in this life, they shall be found "fit for the inheritance of the saints" in the life to come. But it is all a delusion.
"Life is the time to serve the Lord,
The time to insure the great reward."
The Bible teaches plainly, that as we die, whether converted or unconverted, whether believers or unbelievers, whether godly or ungodly, so shall we rise again when the last trumpet sounds. There is no repentance in the grave—there is no conversion after the last breath is drawn. Now is the time to believe on Christ, and to lay hold on eternal life. Now is the time to turn from darkness unto light, and to make our calling and election sure. The night comes when no man can work. As the tree falls, there it will lie. If we leave this world impenitent and unbelieving, we shall rise the same in the resurrection morning, and find it had been "good for us if we had never been born." (Mark 14:21.)
I charge every reader of this paper to remember this, and to make a good use of time. Regard it as the stuff of which life is made, and never waste it or throw it away. Your hours and days and weeks and months and years have all something to say to an eternal condition beyond the grave. What you sow in life that now is, you are sure to reap in a life to come. As holy Baxter says, it is "now or never." Whatever we do in religion must be done now.
Remember this in your use of all the means of grace, from the least to the greatest. Never be careless about them. They are given to be your helps toward an eternal world, and not one of them ought to be thoughtlessly treated or lightly and irreverently handled. Your daily prayers and Bible-reading, your weekly behavior on the Lord's day, your manner of going through public worship—all, all these things are important. Use them all as one who remembers eternity.
Remember it, not least, whenever you are tempted to do evil. When sinners entice you, and say, "It is only a little one,"—when Satan whispers in your heart, "Never mind—where is the mighty harm? Everybody does so,"—then look beyond time to a world unseen, and place in the face of the temptation the thought of eternity. There is a grand saying recorded of the martyred Reformer, Bishop Hooper, when one urged him to recant before he was burned, saying, "Life is sweet and death is bitter." "True," said the good bishop, "quite true! But eternal life is more sweet, and eternal death is more bitter."
4. The Lord Jesus Christ is the great Friend to whom we must look for help, both for time and eternity.
The purpose for which the eternal Son of God came into the world can never be declared too fully, or proclaimed too loudly. He came to give us hope and peace while we live among the "things seen, which are temporary," and glory and blessedness when we go into the "things unseen, which are eternal." He came to "bring life and immortality to light," and to "deliver those who, through fear of death, were all their life-time subject to bondage." (2 Tim. 1:10; Heb.2:15.) He saw our lost and bankrupt condition, and had compassion on us. And now, blessed be His name, a mortal man may pass through things temporal with comfort, and look forward to things eternal without fear.
These mighty privileges our Lord Jesus Christ has purchased for us at the cost of His own precious blood. He became our Substitute, and bore our sins in His own body on the cross, and then rose again for our justification. He suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us unto God. He was made sin for us who knew no sin, that we poor sinful creatures might have pardon and justification while we live, and glory and blessedness when we die. (1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18; 2 Cor. 5:21.)
And all that our Lord Jesus Christ has purchased for us He offers freely to every one who will turn from his sins, come to Him, and believe. "I am the light of the world," He says—"he who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life." "Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "If any man thirsts, let him come unto Me and drink." "Him that comes unto Me I will never cast out." And the terms are as simple as the offer is free—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved." "Whoever believes on Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 8:12; Matt. 11:28; John 7:37; 6:37 Acts 16:31; John 3:16.)
He who has Christ, has life. He can look round him on the "temporary things," and see change and decay on every side without dismay. He has got treasure in heaven, which neither rust nor moth can corrupt, nor thieves break through and steal. He can look forward to the "things eternal," and feel calm and composed. His Savior has risen, and gone to prepare a place for him. When he leaves this world he shall have a crown of glory, and be forever with his Lord. He can look down even into the grave, as the wisest Greeks and Romans could never do, and say, "Oh, death, where is your sting? oh, grave, where is your victory? oh, eternity, where are your terrors?" (1 Cor. 15:55.)
Let us all settle it firmly in our minds that the only way to pass through "things seen" with comfort, and look forward to "things unseen" without fear, is to have Christ for our Savior and Friend, to lay hold on Christ by faith, to become one with Christ and Christ in us, and while we live in the flesh to live the life of faith in the Son of God. (Gal. 2:20.) How vast is the difference between the state of him who has faith in Christ, and the state of him who has none! Blessed indeed is that man or woman who can say, with truth, "I trust in Jesus—I believe." When Cardinal Beaufort lay upon his death-bed, our mighty poet, Shakespear, describes King Henry as saying, "He dies, but gives no sign." When John Knox, the Scotch Reformer, was drawing to his end, and unable to speak, a faithful servant asked him to give some proof that the Gospel he had preached in life gave him comfort in death, by raising his hand. He heard; and raised his hand toward heaven three times, and then departed. Blessed, I say again, is he who believes! He alone is rich, independent, and beyond the reach of harm. If you and I have no comfort amid temporary things, and no hope for the things eternal, the fault is all our own. It is because we "will not come to Christ, that we may have life." (John 5:40.)
I leave the subject of eternity here, and pray that God may bless it to many souls. You and I have looked each other in the face perhaps for the first time, and probably for the last time, in our lives. But when and where shall we meet again? Before we part, and perhaps forever, I offer a word of friendly exhortation. I offer to every one within these old Cathedral walls tonight some food for thought, and matter for self-examination.
(1) First of all,how are you using your TIME? Life is short and very uncertain. You never know what a day may bring forth. Business and pleasure, money-getting and money-spending, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage—all, all will soon be over and done with forever. And you, what are you doing for your immortal soul? Are you wasting time, or turning it to good account? Are you preparing to meet God?
(2) Secondly,where shall you be in eternity? It is coming, coming, coming very fast upon us. You are going, going, going very fast into it. But where will you be? On the right hand or on the left in the day of judgment? Among the lost or among the saved? Oh, rest not, rest not until your soul is insured! Make sure work—leave nothing uncertain. It is a fearful thing to die unprepared, and fall into the hands of the living God.
(3) Thirdly,would you be safe for time and eternity? Then seek Christ, and believe in Him. Come to Him just as you are. Seek Him while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. There is still a throne of grace. It is not too late. Christ waits to be gracious—He invites you to come to Him. Before the door is shut and the judgment begins, repent, believe, and be saved.
(4) Lastly,would you be happy? Cling to Christ, and live the life of faith in Him. Abide in Him, and live near to Him. Follow Him with heart and soul and mind and strength, and seek to know Him better every day. So doing you shall have great peace while you pass through "temporary things," and in the midst of a dying world shall "never die." (John 11:26.) So doing, you shall be able to look forward to "things eternal" with unfailing confidence, and to feel and "know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." (2 Cor. 5:1.)